Just a compliment? Why positive gender stereotypes can be more harmful than they seem

Most people would probably agree that “women can’t drive” is a sexist statement. But what about saying that “women are nurturing”? Isn’t that just a nice compliment? At first glance, these kinds of gender stereotypes often appear relatively harmless. In reality, they are anything but: seemingly positive gender stereotypes play a crucial role in reinforcing traditional gender roles and maintaining status inequalities between men and women.

Sexism, #Meetoo and the backlash

The recent #metoo movement against sexual abuse and harassment was very successful in bringing to light the scale of the problem and sparking a wider public debate about persisting gender inequalities and the disadvantages women face in the workplace and elsewhere. According to the Pew Research Center[i], the hashtag was used 19 million times on Twitter alone. However, the wave of people speaking out about their experiences was swiftly followed by backlash. For example, the #metoo movement’s critics have accused it of not differentiating between what they call real sexism and those behaviors that they claim may be badly received but well intentioned[ii]. A considerable number of opinion pieces argued that the debate was detrimental to the relationship between the genders because it made men live in fear of having their compliments, flirtations or acts of chivalry misinterpreted as sexist. Women, too, expressed this worry. Among them actor Catherine Deneuve, who famously cosigned a widely shared petition in the French newspaper “Le Monde” stating that: “Rape is a crime. But insistent or clumsy flirting is not a crime, nor is gallantry a chauvinist aggression”[iii].

Individuals may differ in if they perceive actions to be sexist; however, what is often more important than whether a particular action was intended or interpreted to be sexist are the broader implications of those actions. Accordingly, not only do blatantly misogynistic actions fall under the definition of sexism, but so do more subtle beliefs, attitudes, and actions, as well as institutional and cultural practices. The decisive factor is that they reflect the (often negative) evaluation of a person based on their gender and contribute to maintaining the unequal social status of men and women[iv]. The latter criterion in particular is often met by unconscious or well-intended actions.

Using the hahstag #metoo, people shared their experiences of sexual harassment and sexism.

 Source: Photo by Mihai Surdu on Unsplash

Where do “positive stereotypes” about women come from?

The definition of sexism covers more than just negative attitudes toward women. It does not only refer to instances where men use their privileged position to actively oppress women. In the long run, social hierarchies cannot be upheld by the suppression of the disadvantaged group alone. A more effective way to maintain the hierarchy, while simultaneously securing the cooperation of the lower status group and keeping the social peace, lies in the creation of positive relationships between the two groups. Positive intergroup relations serve to mask the status differences between groups and create the impression that the existing social order somehow benefits the disadvantaged group, too[v]. This arrangement has been dubbed the iron fist in a velvet glove[vi].

This often less obvious form of exercising power is of particular relevance when it comes to gender relations because there is a unique interdependence between the groups in question. Men as the privileged group are not only motivated to keep the larger societal order and their role in it stable, but also aim to build close familial and romantic ties with women in the private domain[vii].

The resulting conflict between dominance and dependency is reflected in men’s attitudes towards women. Researchers refer to this phenomenon as ambivalent sexism[viii]. It consists of two components, hostile and benevolent sexism, which measure attitudes towards women that seem contradictory at first but are actually closely related. Hostile sexism is the metaphorical iron fist and it is primarily directed at women who question or subvert traditional gender roles, thereby threatening the status quo and men’s privileged position in it. At its core, hostile sexism is the fear that women might want to reverse the social hierarchy and oppress men. At the same time, it is rooted in the idea that the current hierarchy is justified because men are naturally superior to women. Accordingly, an underlying assumption of hostile sexism is that women resort to manipulation or strategically employ their sexuality in order to achieve their goals.

At first sight, benevolent sexism appears to be the polar opposite of its hostile counterpart. It takes on the role of the velvet glove which is supposed to make patriarchal structures palpable to women. It does so by conjuring up a deliberately positive image of traditional femininity. Here, women are no longer calculating and power hungry but empathic, sensitive and sophisticated. Men, on the other hand, are assigned the role of protector, knights in shining armor to the damsels in distress. A power imbalance is inherent in these social roles, but it is construed in such a way that women appear to be the beneficiaries of the arrangement. However, studies have shown that hostile and benevolently sexist attitudes are strongly related in both men and women (e.g., scoring high on one, means you also score high on the other), a finding that is consistent across different cultures and samples[viii].

The concept of ambivalent sexism thus captures two sides of the same coin[ix], and is defined by three sources or factors of ambivalence in attitudes towards women. Paternalism is the first factor: capturing benevolence, men are required to put their own needs on hold in order to take care of women. But capturing hostility, this turns to resentment when women are perceived to not appreciate all that men do for them. Gender differentiation is the second factor: where according to research on benevolent sexism, the “weaker sex” is deserving of protection, while hostile sexism leads people to see women as not only different from but explicitly inferior to men. Heterosexuality is the final source of ambivalence: benevolent sexism leads others to see men as incomplete without a female romantic partner. In the hostile sexist view, this dependency is painted in a more negative light and accuses women of exploiting men’s need for intimacy to control them by means of their sexuality.

What is the problem with “positive stereotypes”?

As we have seen, the two types of sexism do not differ as much in their content as the labels “hostile” and “benevolent” may suggest. There exists one crucial difference between them, though: while hostile sexism is usually obvious, benevolent sexism often goes unnoticed because it masks itself as a positive attitude towards women. People who hold benevolent sexist views tend to not see themselves a sexist and even women often don’t recognize benevolently sexist statements and behaviors as such[x]. Because of this, benevolent sexism can sometimes be even more problematic than its more obvious hostile sexism counterpart.

An experiment by Dardenne and colleagues[xi] illustrates the potentially damaging effects of benevolent sexism. They had female participants undergo an application process for a job in an exclusively male work environment. The applicants were exposed to either a neutral, a hostile or a benevolently sexist remark from the recruiter during the job interview before completing a pre-employment test. The hostile recruiter complained about regulations requiring him to hire members of the “weaker sex”, claiming that feminists were exaggerating the underrepresentation of women in the industry for their own gain. The participants perceived this remark as sexist and it motivated them to try and prove the recruiter wrong by performing well on the test. They did, in fact, proceed to score just as well as the women who had heard a non-sexist statement in the interview. The benevolently sexist recruiter, on the other hand, told the applicants that their future colleagues all agreed that their workplace would benefit from the morality and refined taste of a female employee. The women who had been exposed to this remark performed significantly worse on the test. The researchers discovered that this was due to their concentration being impaired by self-doubt. Women felt equal levels of discomfort in reaction to both sexist statements, but while those in the hostile situation could easily identify an external source of that discomfort in the sexist recruiter, those hearing the benevolent remark could not and thus experienced doubt and distraction rather than annoyance.


 Awareness of gender stereotypes can influence women’s performance in tasks such as math problems.

Source: Photy by JESHOOTS.COM on Unsplash

To identify the source of these self-doubts, it helps to take a closer look at gender stereotypes about women. Qualities that are traditionally considered feminine usually lay in the interpersonal domain, such as women’s allegedly greater social skills and emotional intelligence. Traits that are associated with power and achievement, on the other hand, are usually seen as a male domain that women are naturally less suited for[xii]. Women are, of course, aware of these perceptions and this can cause them to experience a phenomenon called “stereotype threat” in situations where supposedly stereotypically masculine skills are required (cite). Specifically, negative stereotypes about their capabilities interferes with their performance, thus seemingly confirming the stereotype. For example, women perform worse on mathematical problems when they are told there are gender differences in test performance, or when they are simply reminded of their gender. Here, threats create anxiety which takes up a part of their cognitive capacity that is then no longer available for the actual task at hand[xiii].

The reason why the recruiter’s benevolently sexist remark during the job interview had a similar effect on the applicants’ performance is that stereotype threat is not only triggered by negative stereotypes. In fact, exposure to positive stereotypes (such as women’s alleged sensitivity and nurturing qualities) equally reduces women’s performance on mathematical tasks[xiv] due to the “compensation effect”[xv]. Social groups are judged on two basic dimensions. The warmth dimension measures whether the group is perceived as friendly or hostile. The competence dimension reflects whether it is seen as capable or not. Low appraisals on one dimension are often compensated by higher scores on the other dimension and vice versa[xii]. For women who, as a group, are presumed to be warm and nurturing, this means that they are automatically seen as less competent. Siy and Cheryan[xvi] discovered that the targets of stereotypes are aware of this effect. If men voice support for positive stereotypes regarding women, for example, women expect them to endorse negative ones, too. Thus, a compliment expressing a positive gender stereotype can be enough to activate the negative stereotypes associated with traditional gender roles. It is not compliments per se that are the problem here but those compliments specifically that refer to stereotype-conforming qualities. This effect can be avoided if compliments are made for competence as well as warmth. If women, for example, are acknowledged not only for their appearance or interpersonal skills but also their professional achievements or craftsmanship.


  Benevolent sexism causes women to be more critical of their appearance.

Source: Photy by Mikail Dura on Unsplash

Benevolent sexism does not only worsen women’s performance in traditionally male domains, it also magnifies the importance of traditionally female domains. Women who are exposed to subtle forms of benevolent sexism focus more, and more critically, on their looks[xvii]. It appears that positive gender stereotypes activate societal expectations surrounding women’s physical appearance and motivate them to try and conform to traditional gender roles and beauty standards.

These findings demonstrate that the attempt to draw a line between “real sexism” and “harmless” behaviors which are often at the core of criticisms leveled at feminists or activists like those in the #metoo movement is a futile exercise and, more importantly, one that misses the source of the problem. No one would argue with Catherine Deneuve’s assertion that chivalry is not the same as machismo but that doesn’t mean that chivalry does not contribute to maintaining gender inequality in its own way. On the contrary, it is benevolently sexist behaviors like playing knights in shining armor that allow men to subtly reinforce traditional gender roles without being perceived as sexist by themselves or others. Debating the intentions or receptions of individual instances of these behaviors is not conducive to the goal of understanding and addressing sexism on a societal level. As long as positions of power are predominantly held by men and traditionally masculine qualities are assumed to be a prerequisite to achieving them, compliments targeting women’s appearance or listening skills do not exist in a vacuum. They serve a specific function in the upholding of these unequal gender relations. Gender equality has been enshrined in law and is widely endorsed as a principle, but we nonetheless still struggle to overcome traditional gender roles in many areas of life. Social psychological research suggests that positive as well as negative gender stereotypes are obstacles to be overcome on our way to achieving meaningful change.



[i] Pew Research Center (2018, October 11). The #MeToo hashtag has been used roughly 19 million times on Twitter in the past year, and usage often surges around news events. Retrieved from https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2018/10/11/how-social-media-users-have-discussed-sexual-harassment-since-metoo-went-viral/ft_18-10-11_metooanniversary_hashtag-used-19m_times/


[ii] Stephens, B. (2017, December 20). When #MeToo Goes Too Far. The New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2017/12/20/opinion/metoo-damon-too-far.html


[iii] Safronova, V. (2018, January 9). Catherine Deneuve and Others Denounce the #MeToo Movement. The New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2018/01/09/movies/catherine-deneuve-and-others-denounce-the-metoo-movement.html?module=inline


[iv] Swim, J. K., Hyers, L. L. (2009). Sexism. In Nelson, T. D. (Ed.), Handbook of prejudice, stereotyping and discrimination (pp. 407–430). New York: Psychology Press.


[v] Dixon, J., Levine, M., Reicher, S., & Durrheim, K. (2012). Beyond prejudice: Are negative evaluations the problem and is getting us to like one another more the solution? Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 35(6), 411–425. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0140525X11002214


[vi] Jackman, M. R. (1994). The velvet glove: Paternalism and conflict in gender, class, and race relations. Berkeley: University of California Press.


[vii] Fiske, S. T. , Stevens, L. E. (1993). What's so special about sex? Gender stereotyping and discrimination. In S. Oskamp & M. Costanzo (Eds.), Gender issues in contemporary society (pp.173-196). Newbury Park, CA: Sage.


[viii] Glick, P., & Fiske, S. T. (1996). The Ambivalent Sexism Inventory: Differentiating hostile and benevolent sexism. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 70(3), 491–512. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-3514.70.3.491


[ix] Glick, P., Fiske, S. T., Mladinic, A., Saiz, J. L., Abrams, D., Masser, B., … López, W. L. (2000). Beyond prejudice as simple antipathy: Hostile and benevolent sexism across cultures. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 79(5), 763–775. https://doi.org/10.1037//0022-3514.79.5.763


[x] Barreto, M., & Ellemers, N. (2005). The burden of benevolent sexism: how it contributes to the maintenance of gender inequalities. European Journal of Social Psychology, 35(5), 633–642. https://doi.org/10.1002/ejsp.270


[xi] Dardenne, B., Dumont, M., & Bollier, T. (2007). Insidious dangers of benevolent sexism: Consequences for women’s performance. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 93(5), 764–779. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-3514.93.5.764


[xii] Fiske, S. T., Cuddy, A. J. C., Glick, P., & Xu, J. (2002). A model of (often mixed) stereotype content: Competence and warmth respectively follow from perceived status and competition. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 82(6), 878-902.



[xiii] Spencer, S. J., Steele, C. M., & Quinn, D. M. (1999). Stereotype threat and women’s math performance. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 35(1), 4–28.


[xiv] Kahalon, R., Shnabel, N., & Becker, J. C. (2018). Positive stereotypes, negative outcomes: Reminders of the positive components of complementary gender stereotypes impair performance in counter-stereotypical tasks. British Journal of Social Psychology. https://doi.org/10.1111/bjso.12240


[xv] Kervyn, N., Yzerbyt, V., & Judd, C. M. (2010). Compensation between warmth and competence: Antecedents and consequences of a negative relation between the two fundamental dimensions of social perception. European Review of Social Psychology, 21(1), 155–187. https://doi.org/10.1080/13546805.2010.517997


[xvi] Siy, J. O., & Cheryan, S. (2016). Prejudice masquerading as praise: The negative echo of positive stereotypes. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 42(7), 941–954.


[xvii] Calogero, R.M.,& Jost, J. T. (2011). Self-subjugation among women: Exposure to sexist ideology, self-objectification, and the protective function of the need to avoid closure. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 100, 211–228. doi:10.1037/a0021864 

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